1. Beijing’s lost water transportation system
The major river in the Beijing area, the Yongding River (1 on map), was originally too fast and prone to flooding to afford urban habitation, so the city was built some ten kilometers northeast of the river when founded in the late Liao/Jin Dynasty (mid-12th c.), and thereafter shifted a bit further northeast in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). The first moat formed a square around the city’s walls. Today, the northern section of the moat has been restored and beautified and renamed the Xiaoyue Moat (2), its former name, Beitucheng (north wall), now given to a stop on subway Line 10 running alongside the moat.
The early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) rulers shifted the city’s boundary a little to the south, which required the rebuilding of the north and south city walls and their new moats, while the east and west walls and moats were retained. The Ming Dynasty city wall lasted until the 1950s, when tragically Mao Zedong had it torn down, and the moats covered up or allowed to languish (the idiots somehow managed not to tear down Xi’an’s city wall). In its place was later built the subway “Loop” Line 2, whose route exactly follows the former city wall (dotted line). The moat along the wall’s northern stretch (Beihuchenghe) was restored and beautified (3).
In the fifteenth century the Ming rulers began to build a second city wall to encircle the first, but only the southern section was finished before funds ran out. This enclosed a new “outer city” and today exactly follows the perimeter of the southern half of the Second Ring Road, with the outer city’s northern edge formerly bounded by the south inner city wall. The outer city moat along the east, west and south has been maintained and restored (4). It feeds into the Tonghui Canal to the east (5), which in turn feeds into the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal in the eastern suburb of Tongzhou (6, off map). To the west, the moat is connected to Yuyuan Lake (7) and beyond that the Yongding Diversion Canal (8) from the Yongding River at Sanjiadian Bridge (off map). This forms one continuous east-west aquatic route across the city. At some 65 kilometers (40 miles) in length, it must be one of the longest intra-city canals of any metropolis in the world. It is no longer used for transport, apart from the transport of water itself for the purposes of flood control and the intake of water into the city from the Miyun Reservoir.
Formerly the Yuyuan Lake (7) served as an excursion retreat for the Imperial family and was connected by canal to the inner city to the east. Today, a pleasure boat takes you from this lake to Kunming Lake in the Summer Palace to the north (9) via the Beijing-Miyun Diversion Canal. An alternative pleasure tour starts from Nanchang Canal behind the Beijing Zoo and passes through Purple Bamboo Park before joining the same Beijing-Miyun Diversion Canal. The latter route in reverse originally drew waters from Yuquan Hill to the west and Baifu Spring to the north of Kunming Lake down to Jishui Lake at the northwest city wall, for supplying water to the inner city (10). The tiny West Lake just to the east of the Jishuitan subway stop on Line 2 is all that remains of the formerly huge Jishui Lake. It’s the westernmost of a connected string of six lakes (Xihai, Houhai, Qianhai, Beihai, Zhonghai, Nanhai) stretching to the Forbidden City moat that surrounds the Imperial Palace, now named the Tongzi Moat (11).
The Imperial City, which enclosed the Forbidden City and much of the inner city as well, once had its own system of canals serving as conduits for different types of goods (typically grains and luxuries) received from the east and south inner city moats and in turn the Tonghui Canal (5), for transport to and from the Grand Canal to the east (6), thus forming the original east-west transport artery. Apart from the Tonghui Canal and a few waterways that have been diverted underground, this former canal system has entirely disappeared. Transportation of goods and people is now accomplished by road, rail and air. Beijing’s canals and moats still serve the important function of flood control but beyond that are decorative at best and eyesores at worst (though we must not be under the illusion that the moats and canals of the past, mostly stinking sewage traps with dirt embankments, were a pleasant sight; the concept of urban beautification is quite modern).
The above map starkly reveals this. Note how many canals start and stop without joining up to nearby canals. In some cases, they were formerly connected until blocked and filled in to make way for roads and development. In other cases, new canals were built for flood control or farmland irrigation (until the past two or three decades Beijing beyond the Third Ring Road was largely rural). This fragmentation of Beijing’s water system is hugely significant, to my mind. I emphasize my personal reaction here since over the thirteen years I have lived in Beijing, I have yet to encounter a single person who has had anything to say for better or worse about the city’s vast but practically defunct water system. This ghostly network has disappeared into the woodwork to such a degree as to render it invisible and not amenable to conscious awareness in the city’s psyche, despite being right out in the open.
Likewise in the aftermath of the July 21, 2012 flooding few news reports mentioned the vital role of the canal system in containing the torrents of rain; attention focused exclusively on the city’s aging drainage system. One exception was an article in The Economist correctly noting that much of the blame falls on the decision – could it possibly have been by Mao himself? - in the 1950s to fill in many of the canals at the time the walls were torn down and the moats filled in (Flooding in Beijing: Under water and under fire). Thus even when the canals come to life in sucking up vast quantities of surging water, their work is unseen while in plain view, below the threshold of consciousness. But only up to a point. All that is needed is another rainstorm with slightly heavier precipitation to cause the canals’ water to loom up and spill over in vast quantities, forcing themselves into public awareness, if only temporarily, with the reality of a major flood.
You can’t get very far in Beijing without crossing one or more waterways. Yet you’ll inevitably receive a blank stare if you ask a local you’re with the name of a canal you just passed. He or she will have no recollection of having passed any canal only seconds before; you need to drag the person back with you to the canal to prove that it exists. It’s also why I had to create my own map of Beijing’s water system. No relevant maps or books can be found in any of the city’s major bookstores. Even the city’s historical museum, the Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall, had no information, and I failed to get any of the museum’s staff to grasp the import of my question (this was not due to any problems with the language). I didn’t have the patience to investigate the National Library.
I suppose because I come from a city with a large lakefront, Chicago, I have always been interested in the intimate relationship of cities and water. Most large cities straddle water, whether a river, a lake, or the sea. Perhaps because Beijing only has canals, and not especially attractive ones, rather than a seafront or an imposing centerpiece of a river (the Yongding River is on the outskirts of the city), they are regarded as trivial when noticed at all. But if the total distance and volume of Beijing’s canals were all added up, if they were imagined as interconnected and forming a single body of water, it would be substantial. Like Beijing itself, a city too huge to take in at a glance, with no single center or skyline but many “downtowns” scattered around, its water system is not visible in its unity but only in isolated patches. Still, if it requires imagination to conceive the whole, imagination is also capable of transforming it into something much more conspicuous and even magnificent, into an organic, living thing.
2. An imagined future water transportation system
With half a million new people moving into Beijing every year to live and work, the city’s population is currently estimated to be well over 20 million and will hit 30 million possibly within a decade. Its streets gridlocked with literally thousands of new cars added every day and choking with air pollution, an expanding subway system is trying to absorb the flood of people. But instead of picking up the slack, it just gets more crowded and harder to use, as each new subway line that opens up only enables vast new numbers of people to use it. But there is a potentially fantastic public transportation system begging to be developed, namely by boat along the city’s moats and canals.
I mentioned above that pleasure boats already carry sightseers along two overlapping routes to the Summer Palace, totaling some 20 kilometers of territory. If all of Beijing’s waterways were enabled for public transportation, the total distance in kilometers would rival the territory covered by the existing subway system, and it would carry commuters to most corners of the city and suburbs. I do not have access to exact figures but I would guess the navigable waterways of greater Beijing (within the Sixth Ring Road) to add up to several hundred kilometers, more if previous canal routes were rebuilt and existing ones extended to connect with other canals into a comprehensive network, one that moreover would have the added benefit of greatly enhancing the margin of safety during flooding, with water given more space to move and disperse. The cost of this would be steep, but not as astronomical as the per-kilometer cost of building a subway system. And the bulk of the labor has been completed, as most of the potential waterways already exist. Together they take up a huge amount of land. It seems tragic that they sit virtually unused, much less noticed.
The biggest obstacle, clearly, is water, specifically the severe water shortage in the north of China. While water transfer projects from the Yangtze River to the north are in the works, water is at a premium. Huge amounts would be needed to enable a properly functioning aquatic transportation system. Yet this need not preclude the developing of such a system, given the great need for it. At least there is currently enough water to go around for vanity projects such as the obscenely water-hungry golf courses springing up around Beijing in recent years. There would be other serious but not insurmountable technical obstacles: 1) Removal of the numerous sluices, weirs, gates and grates controlling the flow and rationing of water that presently segment the canals, in order to allow for the passage of boats, along with the raising of low bridges and the widening of narrow passages to allow for large-enough boats to make passenger traffic feasible for thousands of commuters. 2) Preserving adequate means of flood control, e.g., by maintaining dry canals to absorb excess water during heavy rainfall. Additionally, the numerous dry canals that already exist could be paved and converted into bicycle routes, something that is also greatly in short supply in this city. Naked bike riding could be decriminalized and encouraged along these routes to attract more people to use them (not as outlandish as it sounds: http://www.worldnakedbikeride.org).
The water transportation system could be built incrementally, step by step, canal by canal, starting with the city’s greatest priority, the Tonghui Canal, to alleviate the huge stress on public transportation between the CBD and the massive suburb of Tongzhou, a city in its own right. Different boats could be specifically designed for different kinds of canals, with larger canals handling more types of boats – larger craft for local traffic, smaller fast boats for express service and fewer stops, etc. Boat stops stationed a kilometer or so apart would be easily accessible by steps from street level. All canal routes would be beautified with greenery and landscaping, making them attractive. Boat commuting would be fun and although increasingly crowded as it became more popular, certainly more relaxing than the crush of the subway or the traffic and exhaust of the streets. City life along the canals would flourish, with the opening of local businesses suited to the mostly residential communities, such as teahouses and – virtually nonexistent in China today – neighborhood public libraries.
With people’s attention increasingly turning to its water, Beijing would take on a completely different look and feel. A major shift in perspective would occur, as a seemingly whole new city unfolded out of nowhere, lush canals that people hardly new existed popping up everywhere like something out of Harry Potter, the coordinates of the formerly bleak and monotonous city reset against the grid pattern, with crowds walking in different directions along undiscovered streets to get to and from their destinations by something unheard of: boat. With this transformation, Beijing might become known as a great city of canals, and more tourists might be drawn to the city for this reason alone than for the entire usual tourist sites combined.
3. The poverty of the institutional imagination
Canals that begin out of nowhere and terminate suddenly only a short distance from other canals, disembodied and shorn of their history, whose water is similarly prevented by sluices and gates from flowing freely, leaving some sections full and others empty and dilapidated: a profoundly metaphorical phenomenon in the Chinese context. It can be likened to the flow of information in China. Societies have traditionally hoarded information and prevented its flow. Until the last couple centuries – the American and French revolutions were turning points – information was universally treated as a kind of currency the powerful could enrich themselves with and dole out to the rabble in crumbs in return for good behavior. That is why literacy – the information canal – is a relatively modern prerogative; it undermines and threatens power.
The Chinese library is a telling example of this. The National Library in Beijing has recently expanded into a massive new building and its services improved. One has to give the government credit for recognizing that a library for public use is something worth investing in. The older National Library was modeled on the factory: you waited up to an hour for a book to be delivered by conveyor belt from unseen stacks and return it within a short space of time without leaving the library (unless you were a professor). You had to surrender your ID even to read magazines in the periodicals reading room, while certain periodicals were off limits to all but the properly credentialed or those with guanxi (connections). There was and likely still is no way to request or access books already borrowed by elite users of the library.
The Chinese university library carries on this tradition to perverse extremes. An elaborate hierarchy is in place, with administrative faculty (exclusively Party members) at the top having unlimited borrowing privileges and undergraduate students at the bottom having virtually none, apart from access to a crowded reading room, where they must surrender their ID and are not allowed to bring in their laptops or any outside study materials. Professors permanently hoard the latest books and journals in their offices with impunity and no one but favored students or underlings can look at them.
More intriguing still is the way information even in the best university libraries is obstructed. A senior librarian working at a university in Beijing where I was teaching once tried to help me track down an issue of an international academic journal (on semiotics, nothing political mind you). The computer records indicated the Beijing University Library had it. This was supposedly one of the best libraries in the country. She herself was a doctoral student in library science coincidentally at none other than Beijing University and was friendly with one of the staff working there. We rode there on our bikes (there was no functioning interlibrary loan system). The electronic catalog listed the journal in the library’s collection and its status as available for borrowing but oddly no location was provided. The two of them were both a bit surprised at this anomaly and embarrassed at their inability to get to the bottom of it. You’d think with their foothold inside the library system I had all the connections I needed, but without the necessary guanxi to penetrate the upper chambers, I turned up nothing.
These are the very best of China’s libraries. Meanwhile neighborhood libraries for use by the general public are few and far between; only the largest cities have more than a single central library. Beijing has more than most cities, I suppose, with twelve public libraries, thus averaging 1.6 million potential users for each (bookstores don’t fare much better: try to find one in any of the largest shopping centers in Chinese cities). It’s not that there is some government conspiracy to prevent people from reading or to severely restrict the nature and amount of resources available to them (as with propaganda and the mass media). It’s more haphazard and inadvertent than that. Just as information itself is treated as something cheap and shoddy, not worthy of much attention, easily accessible public libraries are not considered worthy of funding, despite the relatively modest financial outlay they would require. And with no tradition of community libraries, ordinary Chinese would need to be educated about their value – the value of free and universal access to knowledge that most of the world takes for granted – before the idea could take off. Similarly, average Beijingers would need to be enlightened about their universal right to public space, what is known as the public commons and which should include the huge resource of the canals in their midst.
The idea that there is not enough information to go around to afford free access can be described as the “scarcity mindset.” It applies to people as well, whenever they merely try to get through the day, to struggle and survive, despite having enough of everything materially speaking, when they could devote the same energies to enjoying life and being more creatively productive. Beijing’s fragmentary canal system too, with a mere handful of canals and moats beautified while so many others remain dysfunctional or decrepit, mimics people’s stunted life trajectories, unable and unconscious of any need to self-actualize, to join up with others and form intentional communities, the way the canals could potentially be extended and joined up with other canals to complete and synergize a true water transportation network.